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Local author Peter Mandel talks books, Botswana & burgers

Today on Kidoinfo, Anika Denise shares her recent interview with Peter Mandel from her blog, Bookmarks. On Tuesday, August 3rd, meet Peter Mandel in real life at Kidoinfo Providence Storytime where Peter will read his new book, Bun, Onion, Burger. Alison Paul, author/illustrator of The Crow (A Not So Scary Story) and new book Sunday Love will also be at storytime, readiing from her list of ten favorite read-aloud books.

Providence-based writer Peter Mandel is an adventure travel journalist and the author of nine children’s books. His latest title, “Bun, Onion, Burger,” (Simon & Schuster) just earned a spot on this summer’s “Kids’ Next” list–a roundup of inspired reading recommendations from leading independent booksellers across the country.

Mr. Mandel took a moment to chat with me about his diverse writing career, what inspires and surprises him, and his love of the all-American culinary classic: A perfectly cooked hamburger on the grill.

Q: You’re an adventure travel journalist and a children’s book author. How does one career inform the other?

A: Well, for one thing, several of my kids’ books have travel themes: ‘Planes at the Airport,’ ‘Boats on the River,’ and ‘My Ocean Liner.’ So going on trips on assignment for newspapers and magazines helps get me the experience I need to make my children’s books feel authentic and, I hope, exciting. On the flip side, the language simplicity and clarity that’s needed to write for kids is something I care a lot about, and I try to carry it over into my journalism.

Q: Have you always had the adventure-travel bug? Did you travel a great deal as a child?

A: I can’t remember an age or a single day in my life when I didn’t have the urge to go somewhere or take part in an adventure. It stuns me when I hear people–both adults and kids–say that they’d just rather hang out around the house. As a kid, my brother and sister and I were lucky that we had parents who loved to go places and take us with them. I grew up in Manhattan, but my dad took a job in London when I was seven and we moved to England for two years. It was a life-changing experience, in part because we sailed over on one of the last real ocean liners, the original Queen Elizabeth.

Q: With all the exciting places you’ve visited and written about, which destination was the most intriguing to you?
The most surprising?

A: Wow, it’s not easy to choose. I guess the most intriguing was a trip I took to Antarctica. Adventure cruise ships and icebreakers go there nowadays, and it’s a very rough sail down from the tip of South America. But is it ever worth it. You see things that are hard to describe: immense, blue icebergs floating past, and colonies–cities would be a better word–of penguins. Literally thousands of them on shore. The light is different there, it’s ethereal, like being on another planet.

Among the most surprising was a camping safari I did in Africa, in Botswana. We writers camped out in the bush in regular boy-scout style tents and when we first got there we all assumed there would be some sort of protective fence, or guards with guns to keep the lions, elephants and rhinos away. ‘Oh, the animals hardly ever bother anyone who stays in their tent,’ we were told by the locals. What they didn’t tell us was that the animals do poke around campsites all night long, snuffling, growling, crunching bones from the fire, and charging around.

Q: What’s one place you haven’t visited that you’d like to explore and write about?

A: Number one is a place I’m afraid I’ll never be able to get to: outer space. Maybe the next generation, or the one after that will. My dad covered the original Mercury and Gemini astronauts for LIFE magazine, and I’ve always thought of being an astronaut, or a passenger in a spacecraft, as the ultimate adventure.

Q: What do you love about living and working in Rhode Island?

A: It’s just right for my wife and me in many ways, because it has so much beauty, but is close to New York and Boston. We’re big fans of the East Bay in particular, by the way, Bristol, Little Compton, Newport, and other towns. Also, to us, Providence is like a miniature version of New York. Very miniature, I guess.

Q: Which is your favorite of the children’s books you’ve written and why?

A: They’re all different, so it’s kind of hard to pick a favorite. Maybe it would be ‘Say Hey! A Song of Willie Mays’ (Hyperion, 2000) because I’m such a baseball nut and writing it was a way for me to try and capture some of my nostalgia for the way the game was when I was a kid, in the 1960s.

Q: What inspired your latest book: “Bun, Onion, Burger?”

A: I’m not someone who tries to write a book because I think it’ll sell, or because I think the world ‘needs’ or ‘wants’ it. I pick topics that appeal to me nowadays, or those that were a big deal to me when I was small. And, er, what can I say? For me, at least, there’s nothing better than having a burger or two or more on the grill. The smell, the taste, the texture. I’m hoping readers, kids, agree.

Q: You often visit schools and speak to children about writing. What advice do you have for aspiring young writers?

A: Everyone answers this question by saying ‘read, read, read,’ and I completely agree with that. Read for fun, I say. Comics, cereal boxes, anything you like. Get off the computer and off the cell phone and away from the TV. There are way, way too many screens in our lives. So many that we’ve begun to think that we can’t live without them. A kid who simply enjoys books, gets lost in them, can outstrip one who has all the latest electronic equipment. In short, I don’t think a computer is necessary in the least to be literate or to write. In fact, to be blunt, they’re huge distractions.

This article was originally published in East Bay Life – a section of the East Bay Newspapers, on 7.14.10

Anika Denise is the author of “Pigs Love Potatoes” and the forthcoming “Bella And Stella Come Home.”  She lives in Barrington, RI with her husband, Christopher — a children’s book illustrator — and their two daughters, ages 8 and 5.  Anika is also the host of Thursday morning story hours at Barrington Books.  You can read more of her children’s book reviews and story hour suggestions at www.bookmarks-ri.blogspot.com and at www.anikadenise.blogspot.com.  For information on her books, visit www.anikadenise.com.

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